NEW ORLEANS — After refusing to dismiss a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans and several police officers for the fatal beating of a man in 2005, a federal judge has decided a number of claims in the suit in favor of the deceased man’s relatives.
Raymond Robair, a 48-year-old African-American, was waiting outside a home where he had been hired to do some repairs when two New Orleans Police officers approached him. While former officer Matthew Moore restrained him, former officer Melvin Williams allegedly kicked and beat Robair with a baton. They brought Robair to the hospital, saying they’d simply found him on the street. Hospital staff assumed he was suffering from a drug overdose. Robair died of injuries caused by the assault.
Robair’s adult daughters, Judonna Mitchell and LaShonda Saulsberry, sued the city, Williams and Moore, and several other officers who were supervisors at the time, claiming they’re liable for Robair’s death. They allege NOPD officers regularly acted aggressively toward citizens. Williams, in particular, had a history of this kind of behavior that went unchecked by his superiors, the suit claims.
The judge made the right call to allow the suit to go to trial, Michael Magner, an attorney at Jones Walker who has experience in white collar investigations and trials, including police misconduct and civil rights violations, told the Louisiana Record. He is also an adjunct associate professor at Tulane University Law School.
“Judge Barbier is a very experienced and well-respected federal judge — one of the best," Magner said. "His decision was right on the money. In essence, the judge ruled that Mr. Robair’s family has pleaded a sufficiently strong case to justify that they get their day in court. The police officer in question had a long and well-publicized history of misconduct and excessive use of force. The NOPD should have taken action to intervene long before this incident.”
The civil suit was on hold while Williams and Moore were prosecuted and convicted for their roles in Robair’s death. Williams is serving more than 21 years in prison, and Moore was sentenced to more than five years in prison because he submitted a false report and lied to the FBI about the incident.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier of the Eastern District of Louisiana granted partial summary judgment last week on a number of claims against Williams for his actions that resulted in Robair’s death. Based on his criminal conviction, Barbier concluded there’s no question that Williams’ use of excessive force violated Robair’s Fourth Amendment rights. Similarly, because his actions caused Robair’s death, his relatives can recover damages from Williams through survival and wrongful death actions.
Barbier also concluded that the city is vicariously liable for the officers’ unlawful actions.
Magner said the latest actions is “very helpful to the plaintiffs.”
The criminal charges against Williams and Moore came as part of a larger investigation by the Department of Justice into alleged misconduct by NOPD officers.
“We should be very glad that DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued this case aggressively and secured convictions," Magner said. "The judge in the case — another very well-respected and careful federal judge, Eldon Fallon — appropriately meted out a long sentence to Williams of 262 months.”
But he thinks it will take more than that — and more than this lawsuit — to reform the culture the lawsuit mentions.
“Unfortunately, this type of incident will occur until the city puts in greater safeguards against this type of rogue actor," he said. "I don’t think we’re there yet."
A trial date is set for March 2017.